Manitoba History: Editorial: The Worst Canadian: When Popular History Turns Nasty

by Robert Coutts
Editor-in-Chief, Manitoba History

Number 56, October 2007

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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These days it seems that North Americans have become fascinated with best and worst lists. Blackwell’s catalogue of worst dressed Hollywood celebrities has become a fixture at Oscar time, “Canadian Idol” and “American Idol” television competitions revel as much in the bad performances as they do in the good, while (according to my daughters) TV’s Much Music channel dines out regularly on countdowns of the year’s worst songs and videos.

Into this mix we can now add an article that appeared in the August/September 2007 issue of The Beaver, that once venerable magazine of Canadian popular history. In a controversial piece entitled “The Worst Canadians?” new editor Mark Reid summarizes the results of an online poll that asked readers to name the worst Canadian in history. Many responded, 15,000 according to Reid, and the results are surprising to say the least. With no qualifiers such as worst politician, worst military leader, or even worst celebrity, we are presented with a perplexing top ten list of politicians, musicians, and mass murderers. Four prime ministers are included, three horrific killers (Clifford Olson, Paul Bernardo, and Karla Homolka), Doctor Henry Morgentaler, disgraced business tycoon Conrad Black, singer Céline Dion, and even an obscure Winnipegger named Chris Hannah. Absurdly, Pierre Trudeau tops the list as the worst Canadian in history according to The Beaver’s online poll, ahead of even Olson, Bernardo, and Homolka. Second place honours went to Hannah, the punk rocker who proudly lobbied with friends and others for votes. Even Brian Mulroney, Jean Chretien and Stephen Harper were rated ‘worse’ than Clifford Olson.

In a valiant attempt to bring a measure of gravity to the proceedings, editor Reid claims that readers’ responses were “tempered by their personal, political, religious and socioeconomic agendas. East versus West,” he writes, “urban versus rural; English and French immigrant experiences ... [are the] divides that face Canada today.” High-minded sentiments indeed, although it is quite the stretch to claim that the results of this survey speak to the “divides that face Canada today.” Even publisher Deborah Morrison wades into the debate, claiming the survey was successful ”for the many conversations [it] has started around kitchen tables, water coolers, and elsewhere.” I suspect, however, that any conversations related to this article are probably less about who is the worst Canadian as they are about the propriety of publishing such a piece in the first place. Ultimately, “The Worst Canadians” is little more than a ratings stunt, a sensationalist piece of journalism more suited to a tabloid newspaper than the pages of one of Canada’s oldest and most respected magazines.

That is not to say that the growing penchant for ranking cannot have its upside. CBC Television’s “Greatest Canadian” series, for instance, provided an interesting and enjoyable diversion, as did CBC Radio’s solicitation of listener votes on the greatest Canadian song. These contests were agreeable much in the same way one enjoys some simple pleasure; they were not, historically speaking, taken much beyond the spirit of entertainment for which they were intended.

However, when we get into lists like “The Worst Canadians,” the inevitable result, I suppose, of the shallow pop culture in which we live, things tend to get a little more incomprehensible and a whole lot nastier.

Page revised: 15 September 2013